“Time’s Arrow” and the mundane nature of cultural destruction.

Vince Gaffney


Not surprisingly, we hear most about monument destruction when it is dramatic or when famous monuments are affected. The recent destruction at Palmyra, the Bamiyan Buddhas, the earthquake damage at Assisi or the fire that damaged part of Windsor Castle are obvious examples. However, the reality of monument damage is that, actually, it is pervasive and to some extent inevitable. Ultimately all things pass, and the effect of “Time’s Arrow” is ultimately the destruction of everything! However, such bleak statements don’t excuse the current generation, or any other, from taking action. Indeed, the fact that we understand the extent of potential damage to monuments suggests that we have to act now on the presumption of destruction; to try to understand the nature and scale of destruction or decay and to give every monument the opportunity of preservation either physically or digitally.


Eroded land with prehistoric tumuli in Croatia (Photo Darja Grosmann)


Accurate information on the extent and level of destruction across large areas is relatively rare and only some areas have been investigated with the specific goal of gathering such information. One example of this is the Adriatic Islands Project whose survey of a group of islands in Croatia included the goal of providing quantitative information on the state of preservation of the cultural monuments within their study area. This was no small achievement and over a decade the project teams systematically surveyed, mapped or recorded more than 2000 archaeological sites, providing one of the most comprehensive sets of data relating to monument survival and destruction within the region.


Islands in the central Adriatic


Data from the islands indicate that a significant portion of all known sites, in excess of 30%, may be classified as badly damaged or destroyed and fewer than 10% were actually considered to be well preserved or undamaged. Not surprisingly, little or nothing could ever be presumed to be in pristine condition. Across the Central Adriatic much of this damage reflected changes associated with the development of mass tourism across the region within the last forty years. This has involved the construction of large hotel and holiday bungalow complexes, new roads, water pipe lines and electricity pylons. With increased demand for building materials and few people caring for the land, archaeological sites become merely convenient quarries for hard-core and the associated demand for construction materials has been partly met through the quarrying of stone antiquities for building material and their reduction to limestone rubble for use in construction. In an area that has suffered the ravages of war very recently it is also clear that historic and recent military activities have damaged sites.


 Site Condition on Šolta, Vis, Brač and Hvar (Gaffney and Kirigin 2006).


Old meets new (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


Agricultural decline and decay (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


WWII bunker on Šćedro (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


Outside the areas of urban and tourist development the destruction of cultural sites on the central Adriatic islands was, as a whole, a relatively slow process: a reflection of the nature of traditional building and agricultural techniques on the islands. Earlier stone structures, rather than being robbed and recycled as they frequently are in other areas, have often been used as the focus of later clearance and simply preserved within the agricultural landscape. However, some aspects of traditional agricultural practices can be equally destructive. The digging of wells for valuable water may destroy sites whilst vineyards require the periodic excavation of deep bedding trenches. Olives thrive if protected within a pit dug into prehistoric tumuli. The extensive use of terraces in karst agriculture must also result in dramatic differential destruction to sites.


However, the agricultural population in the region has been in decline since the beginning of the 20th century, and this process, especially in those areas or smaller islands where demographic change has resulted in total depopulation, is sometimes associated with an increase in monument damage. The slower processes of erosion and degradation have actually increased as abandoned terraces collapse and the soils are easily eroded along with their historic contents.


Clearance cairns (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


Destroying historic cairns and tumuli for hard-core (Photo Dr B. Kirigin)


Bulldozed road around a stone field hut or Trim (Photo Prof. V. Gaffney)


What then does this mean for Curious Travellers? The conclusion must be that the methodologies and technologies developed as part of the project have to be made available universally. Whether or not any monument is threatened by deliberate destruction or catastrophic accident is irrelevant as all monuments are threatened and we have to proceed on the presumption that we have to prepare for loss. When historic environment registers or sites and monument records have the capacity to accept 3D data and the opportunity to use imagery provided by the general public it is likely that we will have the capacity to respond to the full extent of mundane, and pervasive, damage to the historic environment.


The Adriatic islands Project (https://www.researchgate.net/project/The-Adriatic-Islands-Project)


Gaffney V, Kirigin B, Petrić M and Vujnović N (1997) The Adriatic Islands Project. Contact, Commerce and Colonisation. 6,000BC – AD 600. Volume 1. The Archaeological Heritage of Hvar; Croatia. British Archaeological Reports Supplementary series 660.

Stančič Z, Kirigin B and Vujnović N (1999) The Adriatic Islands Project. Contact, Commerce and Colonisation. 6,000BC – AD 600. Volume 2. The Archaeological Heritage of Brač; Croatia. British Archaeological Reports Supplementary series 803.

Gaffney V and Kirigin B (eds) (2006) The Adriatic Islands Project Volume 3. The Archaeological Heritage of Vis, Bisevo, Svetac, Palagruža and Solta. British Archaeological Reports International Series 1492.